“When you’re young it’s special because it’s the first one. When you’re old, it’s special because it might be the last one.”
That’s how Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith described his four Travers wins, spanning 23 years from Holy Bull to Coronado’s Quest to Arrogate to West Coast. The latest one, we didn’t say the last one, came Saturday when Smith changed plans in the post parade, gunned West Coast to the lead and made it stand up for 10 furlongs, widening to a 3 1/2-length score over longshot Gunnevera and Blue Grass winner Irap.
“They’re all special, man, they’re all special,” Smith said, as he peeled off Gary and Mary West’s silks after West Coast wired 11 rivals in the 148th Travers Stakes. “Holy Bull was awesome, he was and still is one of the best, if not the best horse I’ve ever ridden. Coronado’s Quest, I helped a little in that one, maybe, just because I didn’t know if he could get the mile-and-a-quarter. Then coming back and setting the fastest time ever in the Travers, then coming back and doing this again. It’s a dream come true. A dream come true.”
Trained by Bob Baffert, West Coast traveled from the west coast to dominate the Grade 1 Travers, knocking off Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming, Preakness winner Cloud Computing, Belmont winner Tapwrit, Haskell winner Girvin, Jim Dandy winner Good Samaritan and six other members of the 3-year-old division which finally has a leader.
“The who’s who of racing was here,” Gary West said. “Nobody can say he caught an easy field, they can say a lot of things but they can’t say that.”
This year’s Travers had it all, the Derby, Preakness and Belmont winners clashing in the big one at Saratoga. That clash failed to materialize as Always Dreaming stalked West Coast but faded to ninth, Cloud Computing slipped from third to eighth and Tapwrit ran evenly to wind up fourth.
West Coast finished 1 1/4 miles in 2:01.19 to register his fourth straight win. In those wins, West Coast sat off the pace each time, stalking in third to win an allowance at Santa Anita Park in May, rating in sixth before crushing eight rivals in the Easy Goer at Belmont Park in June and settling in sixth before dominating the Los Alamitos Derby in July.
Smith called an audible, changing those tactics as West Coast galloped to the start for his Grade 1 debut.
“Warming up, I knew. He warmed up good, like real good, like fire good. The more I thought about things, I said, ‘I better put him on the lead,’ especially warming up, the way he warmed up so sharp,” Smith said. “I thought if they don’t go fast, he might be pulling behind them and I might be swinging on him. It’s the kind of race where if I could catch a flyer I’m going to the lead and it worked.”
Breaking from stall 3, West Coast jumped sharply as Smith squeezed, draping low and long, wagging his whip from his right hand and changing his hold with each stride. It only took 15 strides, Smith rose and froze and West Coast’s momentum established a clear lead. The noose was tied.
“I’m so blessed to ride horses that have the kind of talent to be able to do that,” Smith said. “I jigged him, slapped him, showed him that stick up in his face for just about a jump, just to see what he would do and he went. I said, ‘oooh.’ ”
So did 11 other jockeys, Smith’s ecstasy creating their dismay.
West Coast led Always Dreaming through a quarter-mile in :23.82. Irap fanned wide before sliding into third while Cloud Computing found a comfortable spot in fourth. Tapwrit established a forward spot in fifth. Giuseppe The Great sat in sixth, Fayeq crossed from the outside post to find a position in seventh. Lookin At Lee, Girvin, McCraken and Gunnevera lagged while Good Samaritan plummeted to his customary spot in last.
West Coast doled out the first half-mile in :48.12, unpressured by Always Dreaming and Irap. Jose Ortiz made the first move, sliding Tapwrit inside Cloud Computing and Irap and into third, on the heels of West Coast and Always Dreaming. Those five opened 4 lengths on the cluster of Girvin, Giuseppe The Great, McCraken, Lookin At Lee, an advancing Gunnevera and a retreating Fayeq. Good Samaritan loped by himself.
Into the turn, Smith allowed West Coast to lengthen as Irap pressured from the outside and Gunnevera ripped audaciously around the outside. Always Dreaming slipped backward fast, Cloud Computing echoed that, Tapwrit paddled without making up ground, Good Samaritan chipped at an unmovable rock and the rest were simply filling gaps.
After 6 furlongs in 1:12.23, West Coast wheeled into the stretch, Smith rocking but far from rolling as Gunnevera and Irap made it three in a line – briefly.
“They came to me on my outside, I was like, ‘Ok, is he going to kick in?’ ” Smith said. “Man, he jumped, when I asked him, he jumped. I said, ‘We’re OK.’ ”
Straightening, Smith switched his whip from his right hand to his left and with one smack, West Coast accelerated, separating from Irap and Gunnevera who were the only two left in the ring. Past the eighth pole, West Coast stayed at the job, inching away from Gunnevera who had inched away from Irap. In the final sixteenth, West Coast widened to score by 3 1/4 lengths over a game Gunnevera.
With Baffert at home on his “Grade 1 couch,” assistant Jimmy Barnes, his wife, Dana, and groom Salvador Rangel led the West Coast team, watching the Travers from the clubhouse first floor.
“It’s just the three of us, huh?” Rangel said before the race.
It’s all they needed, switching their implorations from “Come on buddy, come on Mike,” (Dana) to “Go on man,” (Jimmy) to “You got it man, you got it man,” (Rangel).
Racing once a month since making his debut in February, West Coast had made the ultimate transition, systematically turning into a Grade 1 winner.
“That was awesome, wasn’t it? Just getting good,” Jimmy Barnes said. “You never know until you actually go a mile-and-a-quarter and coming here you never know until you run on this track. He was just late developing, we knew he was getting better and better each week.”
Dana Barnes could feel that.
“We loved him from Day 1, Bob every time he saw him gallop, he was like, ‘Who’s that? Who’s that?’ Just the way he moves, he always acted like a good horse,” Dana said. “Ever since American Pharoah, the Travers has been Bob’s goal. He’s been able to build up his confidence, it’s the same thing he did with Arrogate last year, just let him win some easier races, build that confidence, get him fitter, he’s just coming around at the right time.”
For Gary and Mary West, it was exactly the right time, making up for American Freedom’s second in the Travers last year and topping the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile won by New Year’s Day in 2013. On the Wests’ stats page, West Coast jumped past the likes of Book Review, Power Broker, Family Tree, American Freedom and the rest of their horses who have compiled 429 wins since 2005.
“It’s almost indescribable, there are a few races on our bucket list, on everybody’s bucket list, if the Travers isn’t on your list, you’re not following racing,” Gary West said. “We won a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, that was a big thrill, but this was even better. This is definitely the biggest, especially considering the quality of horses we beat today.”
West never dreamed of this while growing up in the small town of Harlan, Iowa, falling for horse racing while gambling at Ak-sar-ben, watching his first Travers on a black and white TV, claiming Joe Blow, his first horse at Ak-sar-ben in 1980.
“It started out as a gambling thing then I fell in love with the sport of horse racing,” West said. “It’s become more about the sport than the gambling, winning races like this, it keeps you young.”
Nobody felt younger on Travers Day than the 71-year-old West. Walking toward the Nelson Avenue gate, West stopped twice. First for a picture. Second for a painting.
Saratoga locals Mary Rose Behan, Wayne Potter and Carol Flanagan Potter, dressed to their Travers best, stopped Gary West and asked for a photo.
“Thank you for letting us share your moment,” Behan said. “It was such a great ride.”
“They don’t happen often, so we’ll enjoy them,” West said.
West walked a few more feet and stopped at a circle of flowers like he was taking communion.
Artist Robin Schumacher, who’s been painting Grade 1 jockeys in Saratoga for 10 years, touched up a black diamond on the Wests’ pink and black silks on the newest Travers-winning iron jockey.
“How you doing, my dear?” West asked.
“It’s a little wet, it’s dripping a little bit,” Schumacher said. “It’s close.”
For West, it was already there.